Task Force Hands Sales Tax Increase Vote to Unpredictable City Council

A city task force recommended that a half-cent sales tax increase be put on the June ballot, but the city council--with a history of absences--will need a large vote in favor to pass it.


The Financing City Services Task Force finalized and approved a recommendation to ask voters for a half-cent sales tax increase for five years Wednesday.

(Respond to our poll about the decision at the end of this article.)

The measure, just one of many revenue options and cuts the task force , has one stumbling block on its way to the June ballot, however: a fragmented city council.

The council must take three votes on Feb. 27 in order to put the tax increase to voters in June. One vote would declare a state of fiscal emergency in Pacifica and requires a unanymous vote of the councilmembers present to approve it—an accomplishment made tentative by frequent councilmember absences and the chance that at least one councilmember may vote against it. Another vote, actually creating the sales tax ordinance, requires a three-quarters approval from the council, or four of five members. 

Councilmember Len Stone has said he’s not in favor of putting the tax increase to a vote of the public just yet, although he would not say for sure how he would vote on Feb. 27.

Council could fall short

Frequently absent from meetings is Councilmember Jim Vreeland, who stated last year that medical issues as the cause. If he were absent on Feb. 27, Councilmembers Pete DeJarnatt, Sue Digre, Mary Ann Nihart and Len Stone would need to unanimously approve the state of emergency, but if any of them were absent as well, the sales tax increase would have to be pushed back to the November ballot. If council approves the state of emergency, just three councilmembers would need to approve the sales tax increase ordinance and its placement on the June ballot.

The council has had to postpone important business recently because of absences.

At the last city council meeting on Feb. 14, Councilmembers Vreeland and DeJarnatt were absent and the council could not take two votes, one about a proposed assisted living facility near Park Mall and another regarding utilities improvements on Palmetto Avenue, because Councilmembers Stone and Nihart had to remove themselves from the vote due to the proximity of their residences to the projects and there wasn't a quorum.

If the tax increase doesn’t make it on the June ballot, it could appear on the November ballot, a possibility some task force members favored because it would allow for more time to prepare a campaign and solid figures to appear in an arguably related expenditure reduction the task force considered: outsourcing law enforcement with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and shuttering the .

Sales tax increase to save the police?

There is a perception, both on the task force and in the public, that a potential sales tax increase is intended to make law enforcement outsourcing unnecessary.

Task force member Karen Ervin said early on during Wednesday’s meeting that due to the lack of details about police outsourcing, she wanted to kill the recommendation for a sales tax increase in June.

Councilmember Len Stone, who sits on an advisory position on the task force, also indicated he didn’t favor a sales tax increase because of vagueness of numbers surrounding the law enforcement outsourcing option.

“I don’t think it’s fair to ask the public to vote on this without giving them enough information to make an informed decision,” he said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Susan Vellone, owner of , presented the task force with a signed petition during the public comment period of the meeting meant to show business support of a sales tax increase. At the top of the petition, signers would have read Vellone’s text that states that the tax increase would preserve “vital core services of the community, which includes seniors and the local police department.”

There are problems with that perception. The details of a law enforcement outsourcing plan are currently scarce and in flux and the revenue from a sales tax would not be dedicated to law enforcement, so there’s no guarantee that the police department would remain even if the tax increase passed.

Task force members asked City Manager Stephen Rhodes at a previous meeting to nail down an amount that outsourcing would save the city, but on Wednesday, he said the best the sheriff’s department could do was “between $1 and $2 million” in savings.

That number won’t be honed down until after months of negotiations between the city and the sheriff’s office and Pacifica’s law enforcement unions, which by law must be consulted before outsourcing can occur, Rhodes said.

If the savings to the city from outsourcing is far less than the anticipated sales tax revenue, the department may still be cut at least partially if savings cannot be found elsewhere.

Furthermore, there are no details as of yet as to how many Pacifica Police officers would find new jobs waiting for them at the sheriff’s office if a transfer were to happen.

A reliable source of revenue

Some task force members wished to delegitimize the perceived connection between a sales tax increase and law enforcement outsourcing.

Member Suzan Getchell-Wallace said that rather than tying the sales tax increase to law enforcement, it ought to be tied to creating a reliable source of revenue to preserve all city services.

“Even if economic development takes place here it’s not going to be to the extent that we won’t need something to boost us to be able to keep our services in tact,” she said. “One way or another we need a sales tax, and I think the community will support that.”

And, in the end, recommending the sales tax increase for the June ballot won a vote after some members urged that a campaign would have enough momentum to succeed now.

“If we delay, we will not get clarity on numbers we want for a long time and I don’t think we can afford to not do anything,” task force member Pete Shoemaker said. “I think the sales tax is the best option, if it fails it does, but I think we have the momentum to go forward.”

As to outsourcing law enforcement, an option that the task force has weighed, members decided to skirt around actually recommending it on Wednesday. Instead they asked staff and city council to “explore the potential for contracting out police services.”

Three options for the City Council

The task force’s recommendations will come to the city council in order of preference: sales tax increase first, exploring the potential for outsourcing police services second, although Rhodes said the city would begin work refining law enforcement outsourcing details before June.

Lastly, and third in preference, the task force recommended a series of cuts across other city departments and discretionary expenditures, as well as a reduction to the Pacifica Police Department’s staffing levels.

The three recommendations are enclosed within options A, B and C in the task force’s five-year financial plan for the city, and are listed below.

Option A

Expenditure reductions

  • Salary freeze and other employee compensation changes (amount already included in previous plans since 2008): $3,700,000
  • Eliminate supervisory positions: $126,249

Revenue increases

  • Business license increase: $20,850
  • TOT on vacation rentals: $40,000
  • Increase fireworks tax: $23,400
  • Update building permit fees: $33,000
  • Assess winterization inspection fee: $14,000
  • Towing fee increase: $25,000
  • Half-cent sales tax increase: (if on June ballot, collection begins in October, 2012 $1,056,073 (2012 amount $264,018)

Total savings: $1,338,572


Option B

Expenditure reductions

  • Salary freeze and other employee compensation changes (amount already included in previous plans since 2008): $3,700,000
  • Eliminate supervisory positions: $126,249
  • Explore the potential for contracting out police services: $1,500,000

Revenue increases

  • Business license increase: $20,850
  • TOT on vacation rentals: $40,000
  • Increase fireworks tax: $23,400
  • Update building permit fees: $33,000
  • Assess winterization inspection fee: $14,000
  • Towing fee increase: $25,000

Total savings: $1,782,499


Option C

Expenditure reductions

  • Salary freeze and other employee compensation changes (amount already included in previous plans since 2008): $3,700,000
  • Eliminate supervisory positions: $126,249
  • Reduce staff for swim team: $5,500
  • Eliminate funding for Pacifica Resource Center: $83,000
  • Eliminate funding for the Visitor’s Center: $10,000
  • Eliminate funding for Pacifica Community Television: $49,584
  • Reduce funding for library hours: $75,000
  • Reducing staffing level in police department: $606,468

Revenue increases

  • Business license increase: $20,850
  • TOT on vacation rentals: $40,000
  • Increase fireworks tax: $23,400
  • Update building permit fees: $33,000
  • Assess winterization inspection fee: $14,000
  • Towing fee increase: $25,000
  • Increase teen program fees: $5,500
  • Increase recreation swim fees: $5,400
  • Increase swim team fee: $14,400

Total savings: $788,018

Todd Bray February 18, 2012 at 02:51 AM
Hilarious. That the poorest in our community are expected to foot the bill for city staff and employees that earn at least twice as much if not three or four times as much as the average Pacifica resident. I hope the committee members understand that they are recommending a regressive tax that will penalize the public for no other reason than to give that needed money to people that are comparatively very well off. It's a shame on all of you folks. Really, it is.
Charles Dodgson February 18, 2012 at 04:20 AM
It's a shame on you for obstructing any kind of development in this city, and then trying to pay for your fiscal irresponsibility by making public sector workers (in one of the lowest paid cities in the county) your scapegoats. It's also a shame that there's no way to levy a special assessment against people like Todd who have fought to obstruct any tax revenues for Pacifica over the past decade.
Todd Bray February 18, 2012 at 02:04 PM
hahaha. Chuckie you are funny. Name a development I obstructed that was never built. PLEASE!
Nash February 19, 2012 at 12:43 AM
...wow, Charles. A special levy on a people that speak out on what they believe in. That's bold. ...and revealing.
Charles Dodgson February 19, 2012 at 03:07 AM
Yes, this entire mess is very revealing into the mindset of a NIMBY: contribute to the city's financial problems, and then selfishly insist that others pay for your irresponsibility.
Camden Swita February 19, 2012 at 08:27 PM
I'm curious: What would you guys think if the city were trying to pass an income tax? Would that be a more progressive way? Keep in mind that this is totally hypothetical. I've never heard anyone on the council or task force even consider it.
Charles Dodgson February 20, 2012 at 12:28 AM
A sales tax is pretty much the most regressive form of taxation, so any other mechanism would by definition be more progressive. I'd support a tax in some form if it was somehow tied to essential services, and there was some way to ensure that council wouldn't use that money as a wayto waste other funds on consultants or their silly pet projects. I don't see any way to do that (or any likelihood of it happening), and I refuse to give them more money to throw away on things like grease refineries with their NIMBY friends.
Steve Sinai February 20, 2012 at 06:07 AM
Quarry (twice,) biodiesel plant, you're currently fighting Highway 1 improvements that you know would improve Pacifica's commercial infrastructure. Todd, you were recently boasting of going down to San Jose to dissuade Barry Swenson from developing in the Quarry. I agree that some city employees are overpaid, but by enthusiastically supporting a no-growth agenda for Pacifica, you have also done plenty of damage to the city's finances.
Rebecca Lorenz February 20, 2012 at 06:14 PM
Income tax? That sounds awful. Everyone would move away. And after seeing the fiasco at the City Council meeting on Feb. 14, 2012, I doubt our city council could even get everyone together to vote on it.
hutch February 20, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Camden says "I'm curious: What would you guys think if the city were trying to pass an income tax?" Why is it some think the answer is always a tax increase. We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Besides Len and Mary Ann won't vote to let the sales tax go on the ballot. Yes more development would help. But that's years off and won't solve this ongoing underfunded pension and wage crisis. All this is just a bandaid and we WILL be facing bankruptcy in a few years if it's not addressed.
hutch February 20, 2012 at 07:03 PM
Camden a few weeks ago you said you were asking the city some questions for us as to specifically how much employees pay towards their own pensions and health care, etc.. Did you ever get any answers?
hutch February 20, 2012 at 07:07 PM
Charles said "we are one of the lowest paid cities in the county" You think because we are one of the poorest cities in the county? Also our average income is one of the lowest, about 50K.
Camden Swita February 20, 2012 at 07:13 PM
I'm not saying that a tax increase is way to go. I was responding to Charles's and Bray's assertion that the sales tax increase was regressie by asking their opinion about a "progressive" tax increase.
Camden Swita February 20, 2012 at 07:15 PM
Yes, forwarding them to you now. When you receive them, if you want to share them with other Patch readers, please post them as an announcement and I'll feature them on the homepage/Facebook/Twitter. Here's the link to the announcements page: http://pacifica.patch.com/search/announcements
Charles Dodgson February 20, 2012 at 11:32 PM
Is that a referencible fact or more of your random speculation? I guess in either instance, it's irrelevant since the market sets salaries; not what we feel like paying.
hutch February 20, 2012 at 11:41 PM
Ha Chuck, well the market is crashing when it comes to city salaries and benefits.
Pacifica Index February 22, 2012 at 10:02 PM
Camden, If you're not going to publish the employee contribution numbers on your site, would you be willing to forward a copy to us?


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